Evergreen Park School District 124 developed the PALS (Primary Academic Life Skills) program several years ago to ensure that students of all ability levels would have the opportunity to learn alongside their peers.
The special education program gives students who need additional Life Skills instruction the opportunity to remain inside a D124 building, as opposed to placement outside the District.
The students flourished in the years that followed the installation of the program at Southeast School, which led to an expansion of the program prior to the start of the 2017-18 school year.
An additional special education classroom was added at Central Middle School to house students who graduate from the PALS program. Taught by Christine Olson, the students in the Essential Life Skills program at CMS learn everything from combing their hair and making a bed, to doing laundry and tying shoes.
“We’re still challenging them and working on the academic skills, but we are also introducing more functional and life skills to prepare them for life outside of school,” Olson said. “It’s really just to give them those necessary skills so they can have a well-rounded base and the best chance at more independent living.”
Melissa Baffoe, who runs the PALS program at Southeast, said she considers it “imperative” that these students continue to receive Life Skills education at the middle school level. She feels it is necessary to reinforce those skills to ensure that the students grow into productive adults in the future.
“It is my hope that we have created a continuum for our students to be able to gain the knowledge and experiences they will need to become independent adults in the future, with a quality of life will be that much better because of these initiative we have put into place,” she said.
While much of this instruction happens inside the classroom, the students are not limited to learning from behind a desk. So far this year, the students have taken field trips to a police station and children’s farm, and an upcoming trip to familiarize the students with taking public transportation in the Evergreen Park area is already being planned for later in the school year.
While the students in the Life Skills program do have a variety of unique opportunities, one of the most vital aspects of the program is that they have the chance to spend time doing the same things as all of their other classmates do each day. They enjoy lunch and gym class with the rest of the school, and each student is enrolled in a general education elective course.
Olson has seen the benefit of this interaction firsthand and, like Newman, sees a great benefit in keeping the students in District schools.
“It’s a way for them to be part of the school atmosphere, while still supporting their academic and functional needs,” she said. “I think exposure to their same-age peers is extremely important.”
EPSD 124 Student Support Services Director Veda Newman, who oversees both the PALs and Life Skills programs, said it was an easy decision to add these classrooms once it became evident that additional support was necessary. While she fully supports educational cooperatives such as A.E.R.O., she prefers to keep students within the District’s schools when possible.
“We believe in providing services to students in the least restrictive environment,” she said. “Placing students outside of the building does not provide them with the opportunity to interact with their peers; the kids who live next door to them.”
Students are placed in the Essential Life Skills program based on their needs and ability level. There are currently two sixth-grade students and two seventh-grade students in the program.